Since Florida’s developed a reputation for being the ‘stranger than fiction’ state (see: the FL man Twitter account for all the evidence you’ll ever need), I cringe when I see a novel that’s set there. Often, they’re written by people who’ve visited the state on a few family vacations, who need a creepy-crazy-yet-still-familiar backdrop for whatever they’re writing, so it becomes an over-the-top caricature for an equally outlandish plotline. That’s why I had some reservations when I spotted The Drifter at Barnes & Noble — but it’s exceeded expectations in every way.
Though it’s a fictional story, the novel closely mirrors the Danny Rolling murders at the University of Florida in 1990, capturing the town, the campus environment, and sorority life that’s spot on (and relatable to anyone, even those who’ve never been to the Sunshine State). That’s largely because the author, Christine Lennon, lived in the state, attending the university during the time the crimes happened, but it’s not just the setting or the premise that makes this book work; it’s how the book captivates without overplaying the drama to slasher-movie absurdity. There’s a very palpable fear and unease on the campus, but it’s not like the protagonist, Betsy Young, is consumed by the threat — or that she’s perpetually running from a chainsaw-wielding killer who’s hunting her down. (A stark contrast to Scream, which was also said to have drawn inspiration from Rolling’s horrific acts, killing five students and three people in Louisiana.)
Instead, it captures the seeming randomness of violent crimes; the way we think we’ll somehow always be an exception to the statistics, and how, when that fear gets too prickly, we’ll make an off-color joke or seek any diversion, because our lives have to keep moving forward, no matter what threat looms in the distance.
It also shows how a person carries those horrors with them years later — how just because you’ve survived and the killer’s captured doesn’t mean the trauma just disappears. The book is dark, but not overwhelmingly so; moments of levity are sprinkled throughout the story, both endearing you to the characters and showing the layers of everyday life, even in the midst of terror. The threat feels real, in that blurred, distant way all crime you hear in whispers and news reports feels until it tragedy hits you directly.
If you’re looking for a compelling page-turner that will make you think, The Drifter‘s for you. Give it a read, and let me know how it resonated with you.